Friday, June 25, 2010

Don Chiofaro going at it again: building on the Greenway?

For some observers, Don Chiofaro is a character out of Ayn Rand, the larger-than-life developer who muscles aside naysayers to create huge and exciting structures that fulfill his vision. For others, he is simply a bulldog, who insists on doing things his way, a person who, as WBUR radio put it yesterday, sees “development as a contact sport.”

He certainly is one of the more interesting characters on Boston’s landscape. Son of a cop, one-time captain of the Harvard football team, it's a good story line. The developer of International Place, who almost lost his building to his lenders, now wants to build twin (600’) towers on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage, as squat and ugly a building as exists on the Greenway. Whether Mayor Menino objects to the substance of  the proposal and/or the proposer (the Mayor's press secretary denies the latter), the city insists the towers be just 200’, a zoning standard expected to be adopted at the BRA's July 20 board meeting. Obviously, if something were to be built, the answer lies somewhere in between, balancing aesthetics with economic feasibility, and Chiofaro would have to seek a variance from the zoning.

The monetary case for the proposal is clear: city and state tax revenues, linkage money, thousands of jobs. But dollars alone shouldn’t dictate what you build in a newly available precious space that could dramatically improve people’s quality of life and enjoyment of the seaport area of the city.

On its surface, the idea of building twin towers on the Greenway seems to contradict the very idea of what the Greenway was supposed to accomplish, replacing the Central Artery with open space and access to the harbor. But Chiofaro’s design has much to recommend it. The towers are sleek and bold, and, as architects observed in the Boston Globe, they have the drama and energy one sees in buildings springing up in Asia.

He’d provide an 88'-wide opening from the Greenway to the Harbor between the buildings. That's 70 percent wider than the path to the Harbor at Rowes Wharf. Chiofaro plans to create an enhanced pedestrian plaza between his site and the New England Aquarium. And, if he gets to build on the garage site, which he now owns, Chiofaro should be expected to take more than a passing interest in the ongoing enhancement of the Greenway. That would be a plus: the Greenway Conservancy needs all the help it can get.

For now, it’s one step at a time. Chiofaro is dealing with shadow studies, wind and other impacts. He is trying to convince people that his design can humanize the landscape and create a path to the sea. Kairos Shen, the chief planner for the city, says, according to WBUR, he has no intention of letting one developer hijack the skyscape of the city. But where was the Boston Redevelopment Authority when the mayor contemplated a since-aborted 80-story building over the Federal Street wind tunnel, adjacent to Winthrop Square? Meanwhile, the BRA requested data (a so-called scoping determination) from Chiofaro last summer and has yet to receive it. So the process isn't dead.

A multi-use development of the scope that Chiofaro proposes only happens with transparency and robust discussions involving city officials and community. Unless the city has a better alternative, Menino and Chiofaro need to drop the Hatfield/McCoy posture, roll up their sleeves and work together to make something happen.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Harvard illegal puts face on immigration problem

The case of Eric Balderas would make a great movie. The child brought to the United States by his Mexican mother, fleeing an abusive father, when he was just four years old. She struggles as a factory worker to care for him. He studies hard, becomes valedictorian of his high school class, and miraculously gets accepted with full scholarship to Harvard, where he studies to become a micro-biologist. [Rocky-like music plays in the background.] Who knows? Maybe Eric is the one who will discover a cure for cancer. It’s the stuff of great American myths. The only problem is, Eric Balderas came to this country illegally.

According to the Boston Globe, Balderas never even knew about his immigration status until he was in high school. As many know by now, the Harvard sophomore was detained at the San Antonio airport returning from a visit to his mother. When the news hit, along with the threat that he could be deported to Mexico, the all-powerful Harvard community, up to and including President Drew Gilpin Faust and members of the Harvard Law School, sprung into action, and now, happily, he has been accorded deferred deportation status. He can stay at Harvard and study and work. At some point, he’ll have to reapply to renew that status. So we all feel better.

But what about all the other Erics out there, kids brought here illegally through no fault or choice of their own, kids without Harvard connections who nonetheless have much to contribute to the American melting pot? We can feel good about the one story, but what of the policy changes needed to keep this from happening on a large scale?

The Dream Act, sometimes called the American Dream Act, has been kicking around in Congress for nine years. Erics of the world would have to be between the ages of 12 and 35 when the law is enacted. They’d need proof of having arrived in the United States by the age of 17, having resided here at least five consecutive years and having graduated from an American high school. They’d also have to be of good moral character. The first six years, they could be here conditionally so they could get a leg up on their college education or serve in the military for two years. They then would be able to apply for legal permanent resident status. They couldn’t get Pell grants but would be able to apply for student loans and work study.

Would the Dream Act encourage illegal immigration? That’s a legitimate concern, but yet another reason to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Eric Balderas may not like being in the limelight, but he certainly puts a face on one aspect of immigration in the United States. His apparent character makes it harder to demonize immigrants, even certain young illegal immigrants. The time for comprehensive immigration reform is long past due. Without it we will encourage states like Arizona to try to deal with the problems large and small, real and imagined, as part of a crazy quilt of inconsistent local responses. . George W. Bush and John McCain showed that this doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. But now Bush is gone and McCain has turned quisling in the face of a tough primary challenge. Will the real statesmen and women please stand up?

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Obama Speech on Oil Spills Falls Short

President Obama said many of the right things last night in his speech on the Gulf oil spill, but there was no sense of satisfaction, much less elation. There was nothing soaring, not even reassuring. It had the feel of an after-school conference with your guidance counsellor.

As Joan Walsh points out in Salon, the imagery and energy were off. Notwithstanding the battle verbiage, the President was speaking from an airless setting. He couldn’t remove from my mind the pictures of the oil continuing to gush, the wildlife covered with and dying from contaminants, the fishermen out of work, the tourists staying away in droves.

The tutorial reminded us of the steps his administration has taken (the assembling of a team of experts and the deployment of personnel and ships. He laid out broad goals for restoration and recovery, but the closest he came to seemingly authentic emotion was when, referring to the destruction of fishing and tourism, he spoke of “wrenching anxiety” that a way of life would be lost.

Clearly the speech would have been more effective had it been delivered weeks ago. That it came only last night and didn’t add anything new to what has been out in the public domain conveyed the sense that (as Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously said about the war in Iraq) “it’s going to be a long slog.” President Obama’s oil spill battle plan also seems to be little more than a long slog.

It is inevitable that he would be criticized both for government over-reaching and for not doing it boldly enough. People in the direct path of the spill wanted him to be more specific about how their claims will be settled; others wanted him to be more passionate about the need for a comprehensive energy bill, apparently moribund in the U.S. Senate.

The President himself seemed depleted. In the past, he has said he’d rather be a great one-term president than an okay two-term president. The mid-term elections seem implicitly to be a drag on his communication. I still think he can succeed as President. I still want him to succeed. But he can’t do it without passion. He must be able to rally the American people. He has set his course on the oil spill, on dealing with BP, and, to a lesser extent, on comprehensive energy reform. He needs to catch the wind and move the ship of state forward smartly and forcefully, tack to the right and left as necessary, and sail to the finish line.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Steve Grossman a Solid Stand-out for Treasurer

At 64 years old, an affluent and successful businessman and philanthropist, Steve Grossman could hardly be faulted if he wanted to play golf and winter in Palm Beach rather than subject himself to media scrutiny and today’s increasingly acerbic political environment. Instead, he is running for MA Treasurer. He says he takes his inspiration from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote, “Life is action and passion; therefore, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of the time, at peril of being judged not to have lived.”

And so Grossman wants to bring his 35 years experience as CEO of the 100-year-old Massachusetts Envelope Company to the position of state Treasurer, effectively the Chief Financial Officer of the Commonwealth. Massachusetts would be fortunate if he wins the post on November 2nd.

He is the only candidate for Treasurer who has had significant experience creating jobs, meeting payroll, generating economic development. He knows how to identify and implement best practices, and he wants to do that as Treasurer.

So, what would he do? Pension reform: moving beyond Deval Patrick’s legislative improvements to cap public employee pensions, raise the retirement age beyond 55, end spiking (jumping to a higher paying job solely to elevate the retirement pay to which one is entitled), and calculating that retirement pay based on a greater number of years than the three highest -income years now counted.

Economically targeted investments: using $100 million in state investments to challenge the biggest banks to create a half-billion-dollar fund for credit-worthy companies to borrow to create jobs, paying the loan back with interest. Said liquidity capital fund wouldn’t make the investment without significant return expected. Grossman insists he’d not get into picking winners and losers.

Lottery and gambling oversight: involving the Treasurer beyond simply helping to name a “gaming” commissioner, viewing the revenues from both lottery and gambling as a package; expanding lottery sales to other locations, like Logan Airport, where half the visitors are from out of state; spending five times as much ($5 million) on gambling addiction. (I wouldn’t mind if he put the “b” and “l” back into gaming and call it gambling, which it is.)

Financial literacy expansion: building on the Office of Financial Education to inform people about credit, debt and other pitfalls and opportunities.

Underlining all, and in contrast to some of his predecessors, a commitment to openness, transparency and accountability.

With all the excitement and interest at the top of the state ticket, it’s hard to get attention for jobs like Treasurer. But it’s worthwhile getting serious about the lower-level races. For better or worse, the Treasurer can have a significant impact on the fiscal health of the state, and it matters who’s in charge.

If he is elected, Grossman doesn’t see being Treasurer as a stepping stone to higher office. After years of helping others in political arena, he views the imprimateur of leadership, being validated by the people of the Commonwealth, having a bully pulpit and the opportunity to make changes that are desperately needed, as the capping off of his career.

Grossman’s grandfather, who started the family’s business and helped elect the late Boston Mayor Honey Fitz Fitzgerald, taught his grandson lessons about family, career and community. Steve Grossman has the potential – especially if he is an independent CFO who follows through on his promised program – to be a boon for Massachusetts.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Being open-minded about nuclear energy

Twenty-five thousand gallons a day of thick oil leaking into formerly pristine and productive waters. Thousands of goopy patches encroaching on four Gulf Coast states, threatening more. Birds black with oil. Local fishermen out of work. Cleanup workers struggling with toxic fumes and endangered long-term by exposure to chemical dispersants—which themselves have unknown environmental consequences . President Obama’s announcement that the well won’t be stopped for months. The impact of the environmental catastrophe, an estimated four times worse than the Exxon Valdiz disaster and the horrific results, according to the NY Times, will be felt for years. The bad news is unrelenting. Is it any wonder that people are starting to think favorably again about nuclear energy?

Wellesley College chemistry professor Nancy Kolodny, speaking to a group of alumnae last week, laid out a compelling case. The need is clear. Between now and 2030, the demand for electricity will nearly double. In the United States, we may have 104 nuclear plants, but they meet only a scant 20 percent of our electricity needs. France’s 58 plants generate more than 62 percent of that nation’s needs, and France even exports some nuclear-generated electricity, all clean, all apparently safe.

For 30 years there have been no new applications for nuclear plants in the United States, due largely to fears in the wake of the 1979 partial melt-down of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. People were evacuated, but the damage was more psychological than real, says Kolodny. No radiation leaked; no one was hurt. Since then, reactors have been required to adhere to stricter safety standards, including more stringent training of personnel, who have to be “retrained” every six weeks.

In the last two years, there have been 28 applicants for nuclear plants starting the long licensing process. Are we finally awakening to the potential and the need? China certainly has. Its map is dotted with nuclear power plants under development.

A 2003 study by MIT points out that the United States needs to do a better job at rationalizing the licensingprocess and developing geologically appropriate sites to dispose of spent rods. Of course, if Harry Reid loses his reelection bid, the burial site at Yucca Mountain might become available. Without that, supporters say that, in the interim, we can safely rely, as do the French, on deep pools constructed next to nuclear plants. Over the long haul, some smart scientist is bound to come up with exciting new ways to reprocess the spent fuel.

Start-up costs have been exacerbated by the length of the licensing process, particularly because the model of the 1970’s was to permit many different designs of plants. Uniform and tested designs could make the licensing process more efficient. And up-front costs of any new energy can be considerable. Even the wind-generated energy to be produced by Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound will be more expensive that traditional fossil-based fuels. Add the cost of environmental damage to the seemingly cheaper fossil fuels, and maybe nuclear will begin to look more attractive.

Nuclear isn’t a panacea. We will still need oil and gas for years to come. But we also need solar, wind and bio-mass. We need conservation, energy-efficient cars and appliances and effective mass transit. And we need nuclear in the mix. We are such a resourceful country. I am sure that the problems with nuclear can be solved, if we overcome inertia and are able to educate ourselves and discuss the issue rationally, free of the heavy hand of politics. Hmmmm. Maybe I’ve been breathing in too much polluted air.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Immigation: Massachusetts an Arizona Wannabe?

Tough economic times can translate into mean-spiritedness and make things difficult for those who are different. If you’re a Muslim-American, for example, you can be assumed to be a terrorist. If you’re Latino, you can be assumed to be an illegal immigrant. And, when an increase in bias against such groups plays out in the context of an election season, hold on to your seats: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Immigration policy is, of course, a federal issue. That didn’t stop Arizona, frustrated by federal inaction to update and rationalize our immigration laws, from passing its own statute. And it didn’t stop the Massachusetts Senate from passing an illegal immigrant bill that codifies already existing policy that bars illegal immigrants from getting public benefits.

Rhetoric has been overheated on both sides of the issue, with immigrant advocates calling the legislation “misguided and inhumane,” and proponents painting a picture of widespread rip-offs of taxpayers by infiltrating illegal aliens. As a Boston Globe editorial points out, illegal immigrants have replaced yesterday’s welfare queens as the subject of contempt and punishment.

Sane policy probably understands the truth is nuanced, somewhere between the two portrayals. Law-abiding citizens shouldn’t have to underwrite income assistance, unemployment benefits or public housing for illegals, but, if the child of an illegal immigrant becomes ill, should the hospital turn its back? If the child had a highly infectious communicable disease, should she go untreated? Not to do so could have significant public health implications.

You could also make the case that an 18-year old child of an illegal immigrant should be allowed to attend public university at the in-state tuition rate. Won’t that student be better able to contribute to society with a better education and, if he stays here, better able to provide for his children? After all, we’re not saying that student should go tuition- free, just that he or she should pay the lower in-state tuition rather than the higher out-of-state cost. The children of illegal immigrants are not the perpetrators of the crime; it’s their parents.

And the entire Muslim-American community are not, ipso facto, terrorists. Try telling that to Treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Tim Cahill. He recently blasted the Governor for “playing politics with terrorism” because Patrick had participated a meeting with 1000 Muslim-Americans. As recounted by Adrian Walker in the Globe, Cahill said, “Now is the time for Governor Patrick to look radical Islamic terrorism full in the face” and cooperate with the feds investigating the Times Square bomber. As Walker points out, Cahill seems to think that “any gathering of Muslims is the moral equivalent of an Al Qaeda meeting.”

Governor Patrick meets on a quarterly basis with representatives of the Commonwealth’s ethnic news media. There are reporters and editors from Chinese-American newspapers. Would Cahill charge the Governor with consorting with communist disciples of Premier Hu Jintao?

People need to calm down, especially state politicians. And Congress needs to have a greater sense of urgency about passing comprehensive immigration reform that includes border enforcement, punishmnent for employers that hire illegals, sanctions as well for those who reside here illegally combined with a rational approach to providing a path to citizenship for those who have been here for a long time and have become contributing members of their communities.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below